Teen Research Trending: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Literacy

What insights can the busy YALSA member glean from the new volume in The Handbook of Research in Middle Level Education: Research on Teaching and Learning with the Literacies of Young Adolescents (Malu & Schaefer, 2015)? This research-based handbook is the focus of this blog, which is the 3rd installment in a series of blogs being published by members of YALSA’s Research committee. I used two basic criteria to decide which ideas from this handbook were worthy of sharing with the YALSA community. First, the featured concept had to have some parallel relationship and/or applicability within Library and Information Science research and practice. Second, the concept has, in my opinion, not been fully integrated into in LIS research and therefore warrants more attention by YALSA scholars and practitioners. My aim is to synthesize the common threads in literacy research across the disciplines of Education and Library and Information Science in hopes that either YS practitioners or scholars alike might be interested in furthering their knowledge of this concept or incorporating it into their repertoire of practices.

The first key idea is to: Understand how adolescents identify themselves as literate beings and understand what having a literate identity means to them. Research suggests that the reading experiences individuals have in school, over time, lead to the development of a reading identity.  Students are acculturated into school- based reading in ways that set them up to be identified as good or poor readers. One way to disrupt the negative or positive binary identification with literacy is to use the language of ‘communities of practice’. The text gives a number of examples of communities of practice, but the one that resonates the most with youth services librarianship is the notion of distributive literacies. One way to cultivate distributive literacies is to create opportunities for adolescents to become actively involved in working with ideas and information and then displaying, developing, maintaining, and sharing that capital with a wider community.

The good news is that LIS scholars already have a parallel construct to the idea of communities of practice with the Connected Learning framework. In a recent report produced by members of YALSA entitled The Future of Library Services for and with Teens, the notion of Connected Learning is central to finding new ways to engage youth that leverage the multiple literacies they practice in school, with their peers, and in their communities. Similarly, the research in this volume calls for educators to create hybrid or “third” space opportunities for learning that allow young adults to draw upon their home, community and school literacies in authentic ways.

The maker movement in libraries is naturally aligned with the notion of third space and distributive literacies. In making activities and maker-spaces, young people are empowered to tinker and create any number of things using tools and resources that libraries now offer such as 3d printing, Lego stations, and a range of classes on things such as bike repair.  However, it is not enough for youth to have access to tools like 3d printers–the maker movement isn’t about the stuff, but rather the hands-on learning. Youth should be given opportunities to DISTRIBUTE what they learn and create to their peers and others to develop not only their leadership capacities, but also their sense of humility in understanding the importance of being servant leaders. A servant leader is one who leads by serving the needs of others. How often are young adults positioned as servant leaders by the adults in their lives? The idea of distributive literacies should remind us to cultivate servant leaders who share their knowledge and abilities with others in a public way. For maker resources, visit YALSA’s wiki.

The second key idea is to: Consider how adolescent African American boys story their literate identities. An author in this volume surmises that “literacies and identities, even broadly conceived, are NOT end goals. Relationships and dignity are. This statement reminds me the stories about literacy we often tell about African American boys tends to objectify and pathologize their literate identities (e.g achievement gap and poverty discourses). Yet, when is the last time you engaged with an adolescent African American, or other youth from a marginalized background in a way that did not objectify them as a “problem” and rather position as a producer of knowledge?

There is strength in the stories we tell about our efforts to engage African American boys in library and other third space/connected learning opportunities. We need to take a note from scholars in education and build research that communicates the storied literate identities of African American males. In order to do so, we cannot sit back and wait for them to come to the library or to relinquish our responsibility simply because their background may differ from our own. Instead, we should work to go where they live and play and look for opportunities to build relationships and learn about how they view themselves as literate beings. Gathering these stories and distributing them in our professional journals and communities of practice can help disrupt the objectifying way we too often discuss and study African American male literacies in LIS. To be fair, members of the LIS community have engaged this topic in recent years through efforts such as the Summit on Libraries and African American Male Youth Literacy and the report based on this work. Dr.’s Alfred Tatum and Ernest Morrell were keynote speakers during this summit. One of the key ideas that Tatum discussed was the importance of providing African American males with enabling texts. I was happy to see this same idea taken up in the handbook. For instance, one author cited the importance of providing African American males with texts that contribute to a healthy psyche, focus on a collective struggle, provide a roadmap for being, doing, acting, and provide modern awareness of the real world.

A third and final key take away from this volume is to find a way to allow young adults to signal literacy in ways that acknowledge its mutable nature and larger contexts. If there’s one idea that scholars in Education and particularly in New Literacy Studies have come to accept is that literacy is a social practice that extends well beyond the narrow confines of reading and writing print text. This idea has gained more traction in LIS scholarship with studies like the Futures report, which draws explicitly from the New Literacy Studies (NLIS) framework. Yet, it is incumbent upon the YALSA community to push the boundaries of this work even further and explore new ways to harness the literate abilities of young people in non- traditional ways that connects to their larger life context outside the four walls of the library.

Kafi Kumasi is an Associate Professor in the School of Library and Information Science at Wayne State University. She is also Chair of the YALSA Research Committee.

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